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Opioids

This 2017 photo shows an arrangement of pills of the opioid oxycodone-acetaminophen in New York. 

Patrick Sison, AP

Carbon County filed a federal lawsuit Tuesday against more than 15 opioid manufacturers and distributors — including giants Purdue Pharma and Johnson & Johnson — for “alleged misrepresentation about the addictive properties” of the medications.

The county is the first in Wyoming to file a suit against opioid manufacturers. But it joins more than 600 counties across the United States “to bring an end to the opioid epidemic,” according to a press release from the county’s private attorney, Jackson’s Jason Ochs.

“Drugs are a problem no matter what. Prescription drugs are an even greater problem, in our opinion,” said Leo Chapman, a Carbon County commissioner. “There’s a hell of a lot more production for those things than the need requires.”

The Northern Arapaho Tribe filed a lawsuit against a number of opioid manufacturers in April. Counties in Colorado, Idaho and Nebraska, plus the state of Montana, have all filed suits against opioid makers and distributors.

Among the named defendants in the Carbon County suit is Purdue Pharma, the manufacturer of OxyContin and other opioids. The company made $1.8 billion from OxyContin in 2017, according to Vox and Bloomberg, and the opioid makes up about 30 percent of the overall painkiller market.

Other defendants include Johnson & Johnson, Teva Pharmaceuticals, Cephalon Inc., Endo Health Solutions, Actavis Pharma and AmerisourceBergen Drug Corporation.

Some, like Purdue, created the drugs, while others, like AmerisourceBergen, distributed them. Attorneys wrote that “(e)ach participant in the supply chain shares the responsibility for controlling the availability of prescription opioids.”

The 72-page suit “does not ask this Court to weigh the risks and benefits of long-term opioid use,” according to the complaint. “Instead, the People seek an order requiring Defendants to cease their unlawful promotion and distribution of opioids, to correct their misrepresentations, and to abate the public nuisance they have created.”

The suit alleges that in the 1990s, the companies “began a sophisticated marketing and distribution scheme premised on deception to persuade doctors and patients that opioids can and should be used to treat chronic pain.”

Much of the suit centers on the companies’ methods of selling the medications. It alleges that the companies intentionally steered physicians toward prescribing the synthetic opioids to patients with chronic pain. Previously, the suit says, the drug had been used to treat acute pain, like that felt after surgery.

The companies used groups of doctors to help push the medications in the medical community, the lawsuit alleges, and spread misleading information about addiction rates, the efficacy of the drugs and the dangers of overuse.

For instance, OxyContin has long been touted by Purdue as a 12-hour painkiller. Carbon County joins a lengthy list of entities to push back on that claim.

“In fact, OxyContin does not last for 12 hours—a fact that Purdue has known at all times relevant to this action,” the suit says. “According to Purdue’s own research, OxyContin wears off in under six hours in one quarter of patients and in under 10 hours in more than half.”

As a result, patients may take another dose quicker, which may set them on the path toward dependence.

Like the Northern Arapaho’s suit, Carbon County’s lawsuit is relatively light on specific problems suffered by the area that’s home to about 16,000 Wyomingites. It centers on the overall effects opioids have had on communities — including Carbon County — across the country and how the allegedly misleading efforts by the manufacturers and distributors exacerbated them.

Ochs and Chapman both said there was a problem in the county and that the commissioners felt the need to intervene and, in Chapman’s words, “draw attention” to the abuse of the drugs.

According to a recent report by the Wyoming Survey & Analysis Center, retail pharmacies in Carbon County filled 767 opioid prescriptions per 1,000 people between 2014 and 2016 — the 10th highest in the state. Between 2014 and 2015, the county had the most opioid-related inpatient hospital discharges.

Citing the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Ochs said Carbon County had the third-highest overdose death rate in Wyoming, after Fremont and Uinta counties.

Similar suits across the country have all been brought under a federal judge in Cleveland, Ohio. But Ochs said in the press release that he plans to have the “case decided in Wyoming, by a Wyoming jury.”

“Nobody wants an Ohio jury to make decisions for Wyomingites,” he added to the Star-Tribune.

Ochs declined to say whether he had heard of or spoken with other Wyoming counties about joining the lawsuit. Chapman said he and his fellow commissioners had previously spoken with their counterparts from across the state.

The lawsuit — which Ochs said will take years — seeks financial remediation from the companies, as well as “an absolute stop to the false marketing, to the distribution chains that are coming into Wyoming that are providing way too many opiate medications for the population, an injunction or restraining order against each of these companies against doing anything would be remotely against the law,” Ochs said.

Health officials in Wyoming have said that it’s difficult to tell how serious the opioid epidemic is here. Laura Griffith, the executive director of Recover Wyoming, told the Star-Tribune in March that the state hadn’t been hit by the full brunt of the epidemic that had ravaged rural areas elsewhere in the country and that officials were working to keep it that way.

Follow education reporter Seth Klamann on Twitter @SethKlamann

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Education and Health Reporter

Seth Klamann joined the Star-Tribune in 2016 and covers education and health. A 2015 graduate of the University of Missouri and proud Kansas City native, Seth worked for newspapers in Milwaukee and Omaha before coming to Casper.

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